Why are coping skills so important?

By Chad Ernest, MS, LPC


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Coping skills are those daily strategies and activities that we use as people to help deal with, work through, or process our emotions.  We all have them.  We have learned them from our families and the people who have influenced us most in our lives.  They can be positive and heathy, but they can also be negative and unhealthy.  We can look at this as a coping spectrum (Diagram 1).  This form is useful for mapping out coping skills and activities that individuals do in their lives to overcome and manage stress and emotional turmoil.


Diagram 1

Coping Spectrum



(-)                                                                                                                                                          (+)


Directions:  On the line above, place activities, hobbies, or anything that you do that helps you deal with or distract yourself from things that are happening in your life.  This can be good habits or bad habits and place them where you feel they fit on the line.  If something is both a positive and a negative coping skill, or you are not sure, put it in the middle.


So what are coping skills?

Positive coping skills can include exercise (walks, biking, and going to the gym), healthy eating habits, regular sleep, talking with others, social activities and outings, hobbies (reading, writing, doing models, collecting stuff) and any other activities that a person can think of that fall here.  Prescriptions medications can even be a positive coping mechanism if they help manage mental health symptoms.  A lot of individuals do not think of chores, work and getting one’s self ready in the morning (self-care) as coping skills, but they are.  Think of it this way, if you are feeling bad in the morning, do you really want to take a shower and get yourself ready for your day?  If you do, do you feel a little better?

Negative coping skills include abusing or drinking too much alcohol, abusing drugs (as in illegal, over the counter, and prescription drugs), problem gambling, doing something illegal (i.e. robbing someone for kicks, or to support other negative coping skills, tagging buildings, intentionally hurting animals or people, physical or sexual abuse).  It can also involve not knowing how to control the level of the emotions by being too loud and verbally abuse to others, smashing things, dwelling on suicide, over the top giddiness, or being too afraid of everything and staying inside.  These types of coping skills rarely make people feel better and usually mask or hide the issues.  The issues that are being covered up by this coping skills are typically not be worked through.

Wait, a healthy coping skill can become negative?

One other thing to look out for is that any healthy coping skill can become a negative coping skill.  Think about this for a second…can someone exercise too much, or eat unhealthy food all the time, or just read books and do nothing else?  Anytime a coping skill is being done just to avoid everything else in life, it can become unhealthy and move from the positive side of the coping spectrum to the negative side.  It is important to be aware of this when looking at one’s own coping skills in their life.  There is a balance to be maintained with coping skills.

What does it look like?

Here is coping skill example…someone close to a person died.  They knew them forever.  How do they cope?  Do they sit on the couch eating potato chips with a box of Kleenex watching super sad movies?  Do they think that they should have died too?  Do they reflect on all the positive memories that they had with that person and celebrate their life by doing some of those things that they enjoyed with them while they were alive?  We all handle grief differently, but there are healthy and positive ways that are better than others.  Do you know what those are for you?  Do you know what the negative ones are that you have to look out for?  I don’t recommend sitting around on the couch, but it is not horrible.  Reflecting and remembering positive memories and celebrating a person’s life is a healthy outlook, but not everyone’s style for dealing with grief.  If anyone thinks they should have died too, they may want to seek some help.  That is definitely not a healthy place to go for anyone.

Ask for Help

The number one coping skill that is out there for anyone that so many people avoid when they are struggling is…talking to someone and asking for help.  The American culture and society (for the most part) are stuck on the concept of individualism and survival of the fittest, we do not often think of asking for help.  There is nothing wrong with asking for help.  When your coping skills are not enough, or they are too negative and unhealthy, and you are not sure what to do, ask for help.  The whole idea and concept behind mental health counseling and therapy is to help people replace the negative and unhealthy ways to deal with life stressors and struggles with more positive and healthy ways.  Coping skills help you process and deal with life stressors, struggles and emotions.  They help balance your overall mental health.  Don’t be afraid to seek help in learning how to add more skills to your coping spectrum or get rid of some of those troublesome unhealthy coping skills that cause more trouble than they help with…